Opinions

We must end illegal camping in Anchorage. In the meantime, let’s make it less dangerous.

Encampments are intolerable. They are inhumane places for humans to have to sleep when they have no alternatives. It is hard to know how many campers have no alternatives and how many chose to camp. We do know that camps have grown in numbers and size. Campers on land not intended for camping create tons of waste and create hazardous public health and safety conditions affecting them, the public and park lands and waterways.

Removal and abatement of illegal camps has been a slow process. We used to call it whack-a-mole: notice a tent, abate the camp, clean the camp and – voila – ready for reoccupation. Some clever residents now call it room service.

As the bustle continues within the mayor's office to coordinate three agencies to notice camps, provide outreach to campers, abate and clean camps, and provide data on these efforts, campers move from space to space, abandoning tons of waste in their wake.

Some areas look much better after the summer's notices and cleanups – Valley of the Moon, for example. Some areas have all new encampments. The Municipality expended resources allocated for camp abatement and cleanups. It must struggle with the availability of sleeping alternatives, legal notice and storage issues attendant to camp removals. Its processes were not well-forged for this summer. Many camps remain. Many more will follow.

Camp abatement, however, is not the sole action that the municipality is required by law to take. In addition to internally aligning and creating a clear plan to eliminate illegal camps within the bounds of the law, the municipality has a duty in the interim to reduce camp impact and entrenchment. Mass garbage attracts rodents and other vermin and spreads food-borne diseases. Use of the land and creek, where adults and children recreate, for human waste and cleaning become breeding grounds for infections, tuberculosis, airborne biohazards and transmittable diseases. Propane heaters and grills used to make fire to heat tents and cook (in areas not designated for fires), batteries and other fuels, and open fires – often tended by intoxicated persons – are all dangers posed by public campers.

The Municipal Code defines public nuisance as any act or condition…that annoys, injures or endangers the safety, health, comfort or repose of the public. The Code's stated purpose is to assure they are prevented, discontinued, abated timely and do not reoccur.

A litany of public nuisances are enumerated in that chapter of the Code:

  • Disposal of solid or liquid human waste.
  • Discarding or placing solid or liquid waste on public property.
  • Storage of garbage, junk or salvage in an unsecured manner.
  • Transportation of putrescible waste in an unauthorized manner.
  • Depositing, dumping, abandoning, throwing, scattering or transporting solid or liquid waste in any manner as to cause the littering of any public property or watercourse.
  • Discharge of wastewater, liquid waste, garbage or other putrescible waste to people, insects, rodents, other humans in such a way that the transmission of infective material may result thereby.
  • Causing or permitting the escape of soot, cinders, noxious acids, fumes, gases in such place or manner as to be detrimental to any person or the public, endanger health, comfort and safety of any such person or the public.

These nuisances, unlike the act of illegal camping, require no special notice or storage requirements for abatement.

The Code authorizes the 'Department' to enjoin or abate a violation and indicates that the 'director' can take enforcement and abatement actions. The code defines 'Department' as the appropriate municipal agency, including the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Development Services, Planning Department, Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility, or the Anchorage Police Department, responsible for regulating public nuisances, which may depend upon the type or location of the public nuisance. It further defines 'director' as the agency head or designee of the appropriate municipal agency.

It would appear that various municipal agencies are tasked with regulating and enforcing nuisance abatement on public property. What agencies are they? What are those agencies regularly doing to detect, enforce against and abate these nuisances caused by illegal campers during their unlawful camping stays on public property?

I am fairly confident that if I propounded any of these public nuisances on public or my own private property, they would be swiftly addressed by municipal enforcement agencies and abated. I base this on my experience trying to improve the greenbelt in front of my home with plantings other than the crabgrass growing there. Municipal enforcement visited within 12 hours. Yet the municipality has turned a blind eye to the desecration of public lands that have long been jewels in the crown of this city.

Solid Waste can and should enforce litter and garbage violations and provide direction for abatement of these nuisances. The Department of Health and Social Services can and should provide sharps containers for needles and direction on other medical waste disposal and engage with campers to stop or slow the process of foodborne illness and disease. Human waste and putrescible waste should be addressed in a meaningful way to protect our waterways. Police and fire services can and should provide a regular enforcement presence to deter crime and fire danger to campers, the public and the park.
A contracted enforcement service could also perform these duties.

Public camping is legally protected when sleeping alternatives are unavailable. Public campers are not legally protected from being held as accountable to nuisance laws as any other citizen.

To quote Game of Thrones, winter is coming. The camp abatement season is done. At the very least, basic camp enforcement against public nuisances and impact reduction should be implemented to hold the line on the literal tons of hazardous materials and other waste that will otherwise predictably befall us between now and spring.

Stephanie Rhoades is a retired District Court Judge who lives downtown. She started one of the first Mental Health Courts in the United States in 1992 in Anchorage. She serves on the Board of Anchorage Community Mental Health Services and is the lead food coordinator for Project Homeless Connect.

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